JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire; © Tate Britain, Photographic Rights © Tate (2004), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0
JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire; © Tate Britain, Photographic Rights © Tate (2004), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

I have just returned from a lengthy road trip through the Midwest back to Brooklyn, New York, where for the time being I live. We drove for three days to a log cabin that my Italian-American grandfather helped build almost a century ago, way up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a half-hour drive away from the nearest incorporated town. (He got a share of the cabin in exchange for legal work before he quit the law to be a butcher.) For days on end I held our terrier Genet on a pillow on my lap as he agitated at bridges and rumble strips. It was hot as hell, in the midst of this dreary “heat dome,” in which the center and eastern parts of our country are immersed right now. My body was perennially in burning discomfort while trapped in our small Honda, as that week I had just entered the third trimester of pregnancy, and we had to stop every two hours for me to stretch, empty my bladder, get the weight of the dog off me. I was downing so much water to stop the contractions I was having from the heat, that strange tightening feeling, like my stomach was going to explode. I have never been so sick in my life of public bathrooms—of wiping down seats, of the cheap toilet paper that gets stuck in your pubic hair, of waddling my uncomfortable strange body through doors, the same fast-food chains, everything almost identical. What slightly disturbed me on this trip was the amused or adoring or concerned gaze I received from so many strangers—who saw me as a very pregnant and sweaty woman in a short cotton dress with her little black dog, who saw me as very much a woman, an impending mother, something both visible and totally unthreatening, not the usual suspicious looks we sometimes got as city people in small Midwestern towns. I didn’t like it. But as we drove through the various highways and roads, through Pennsylvania, through Ohio, through Michigan, I was especially disturbed, rattled, by the looming highway signs VOTE FOR TRUMP! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Or the HILLARY FOR PRISON signs. Or just the singular, fucking scary, almost onomatopoeic TRUMP. I didn’t see that many—but the ones I did see looked like ominous humid beacons that I couldn’t quite believe. Trump is everywhere—it is now three months away from the election, the same week my daughter is expected to be born. We were finally a bit separated from the news in the woods, when before we were trapped in that endless cycle of constant refresh, horror, distraction, but every time we looked at the Times I joked to my partner it felt like the Trump Times, it was all they were covering, his every racist belch and shocking pronouncement. I just logged on to double-check and the Olympics is front page—that jingoistic distraction, yet I watch the clips on YouTube too, in awe at the American female gymnastic team, needing some sort of what Lauren Berlant might call a national feeling, or national sentimentality—and then every other fucking article is about Trump, Trump’s dad, Trump being down in the polls, what darned thing did Trump say today, the Trump kids. This summer—this summer has been so terrible, seemingly apocalyptic, there is a darkness to the landscape, to reference David Wojnarowicz. Every day we get news of the regular and horrific police brutality against black Americans, the surveillance and murder of black Americans that had gone undocumented for so many years, every day this summer there seems to be another report of a massacre or bombing in the world, the massacre at the Orlando nightclub, where LGBT and Latinx Americans were specifically targeted, the attacks during a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, in an airport in Turkey, in a hospital in Pakistan, some claimed by the Islamic state, others the result of individual attacks of toxic masculinity, but all simplified and politicized when coming out of the brutal and banal mouths of corrupt politicians, paid for by banks and the NRA, a xenophobia that is further radicalizing alienated Muslim kids who are consistently told they’re not American, or that America hates them, this erosion of the gray zone that is ISIS’s main intent, which the Trump fire-breathing mouth-machine just feeds into. Almost every week I hear about some mass shooting in this country, where unhinged men and boys born on paranoia and fear get access to assault rifles, and nothing happens. There were just two women raped and strangled and murdered while out running in the fucking broad daylight, in Boston and Queens. There are laws being passed in states like North Carolina criminalizing transgendered people from using the bathroom of their chosen gender, while trans and gay youths are still the most vulnerable to not only depression and suicide, but rape and murder. Trump’s VP pick is the monster governor from Indiana who tried to put a bill into place demanding that fetuses need burials, and all the time all over this country the rights of women to receive accessible and safe abortions are being peeled away, even Clinton’s VP pick is against helping poor women, predominantly women of color, from having access to safe and legal abortions, because they cannot afford it. This is not my grief, I do not own it, I cannot appropriate it, but it is my grief as an American, and I’m reminded of that line in David Wojnarowicz’s jeremiad, Close to the Knives, lines that I could tattoo on my ever expanding and discontented body, I’ve quoted them so often: “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder and I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.” He is writing amidst the Culture Wars and the NEA Four and Jesse Helms, amidst the death of his friends and fellow artists from AIDS, his beloved Peter Hujar, the disintegration of his own body also dying of the disease providing more urgency to the pages, the erasure of the crisis of AIDS and gay citizens from the national narrative, he is writing, no, not amidst, but against, and the entire series of essays is a scream against a wasteland of a country and a wasting body, and with that hatred, that vitriolic anger, some sort of love amidst the pessimism, some sort of radiant despair in his work, the videos, the photographs, the writing, in these acts of protest. I didn’t come to writing with any sense of decorum or craft, with ideas of character or plot or narrative, with the stuff brained inside creative writing workshops or MFA programs, or even literature classes, I didn’t even know when I started writing, if what I was writing were essays or novels or poetry or plays or what was it, knew nothing of publishing market mandates about what the reader wants, I came to writing as an amateur yet obsessive student of avant-garde performance and theater, of Brecht’s A-effect, of Artaud’s theater of cruelty, of Karen Finley as a daughter of Artaud with her raging monologues of victims and victimizers, of Sarah Kane’s mournful and grotesque violence, like from the ancient Greeks. The art that really spoke to me was that of an excessive elegy, was tacky and angry, like David W’s video “A Fire in my Belly,” the St. Sebastian imagery, the ants crawling on the Crucifix. I’m realizing now that it’s David Wojnarowicz’s rage against provincial minds and Catholicism that I relate to the most, like Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek’s acidic novels against the ghosts of Austria’s past, the banality of evil represented so often in the oppressive family structure. Around the time I began writing O Fallen Angel–around the summer of 2007, I think—I was binge-reading the novels of Elfriede Jelinek, really studying them, and wondering for me what an American political novel, post-Acker, would look like that was agitprop, that utilized a banal and complacent language as a sort of weaponry. (It made me so happy when I read the letters of Kathy Acker and Ken Wark just published by Semiotext(e), to realize that Kathy Acker was seriously reading Elfriede Jelinek in translation.) I was stalled from various larger projects and O Fallen Angel really began as a stylistic experiment, I had finished Jelinek’s Women as Lovers and liked the sing-songy diptych structure, the way she could house larger social critiques within a text of the family, I thought, What would this look like if it was a sort of Midwestern Gothic? That was what I felt fated to write, novels of Midwest claustrophobia and rage, a triptych like Francis Bacon’s paintings, a cruel, almost caricatured tale of the psychosis of the American family during wartime. I was so fucking angry and politically depressed that summer, as angry as I think I’m feeling scared and politically depressed this summer, angry at the Bush administration and the Iraq war and conventions of gender and identity that I felt suffocated into, I felt impotent, and I felt angry, I had been thinking a lot about this man in Chicago who had just set himself on fire off the highway in protest against the war, and thinking of this girl I used to be very close with, from a South Side Irish Catholic family, who had committed suicide only a couple years earlier, and thinking of a comfortable racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia amidst a certain kind of white bourgeois family, and I was living in a Pilsen high-rise walk-up without air conditioning in the worst July, feeling sweaty and angry and in some sort of state of an ecstatic trance, and this work came off fast—in under two months—like a protest, a scream, a song in my head. It feels so far away from my concerns now as a writer—I am more interested in my recent work, perhaps, now in a melancholy sort of elegy, than in vitriolic satire, but I am still interested in the link between these two, how to write of a historical memory, of ghosts, how both contain mourning. I admire OFA’s energy, its intensity, its incredibly bad taste—sometimes, I wonder if the past eight years have made me complacent.

KZ

Brooklyn, NY

8/12/2016

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“Postcard from America” appears in the reissue of Kate Zambreno’s first novel, O Fallen Angel, forthcoming from Harper Perennial in January 2017.

Kate Zambreno

The reissue of Kate Zambreno’s first novel, O Fallen Angel, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in January 2017. Zambreno is also the author of Green Girl and Heroines. She is at work on a series of books about time, memory, and the persistence of art. Book of Mutter is forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in March 2017. Drifts is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in early 2018.

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